Updated: Mar 25
“1940s Radio Hour is a hit in any decade!”
If you’re searching for a slice of holiday entertainment that’s sweet as a Christmas cookie, smooth as a glass of eggnog and nutty as a proverbial fruitcake, the “1940s Radio Hour,” currently being performed at Rose Center Theater in Westminster, is colorfully packaged and ready to regale you on their final three days of performance, December 17th, 18th & 19th.
Come with us back in time, before radio became television. Set against the backdrop of World War II, “1940's Radio Hour” is a musical written by Walton Jones that follows a group of radio artists at Christmas as they attempt to make it big on the "Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade."
Follow along as harried producer/announcer Clifton Feddington marshals the cast, which is led by crooner Johnny Cantone, a Sinatra clone who dates veteran diva, Ann Collier. The “1940’s Radio Hour” isn’t a war relic, however. It opened in 1980, winning a Theatre World Award that year, and it was nominated for six Drama Desk honors.
It’s a snowy night, December 21st, 1942, and the clock is counting down for a little New York City radio station called WOV to record an hourlong broadcast for American soldiers serving overseas at the waning Hotel Astor in Manhattan, the station’s last show before Christmas.
The narrative concerns the harassed producer, the drunken lead singer, the second banana who dreams of singing a ballad, an assortment of young wannabe’s, and the young trombone player who chooses a fighter plane over Glenn Miller. There is no single story, but rather, a potpourri of radio spots, giving us glimpses into the lives of the people involved with the radio program — mostly through singing, dancing, comedy bits, wartime patriotic salutes, amusing commercials for real 1940s products like Cashmere Bouquet toilet soap and Sal Hepatica laxative, and even an abbreviated “Christmas Carol” radio drama.
The charismatic emcee Clifton A. Feddington (played by Vincent Aniceto; “The King and I”) and his partner Saul Lebowitz (who is only named in the script) have been producing “The Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade” for six years, one year with WOV Radio. Mr. Aniceto anchors the production, and you know he is in charge with his large presence and commanding voice.
A show within a show, this production is directed and musically directed by Tim Nelson, also playing piano, conducting the fictitious Zoot Doubleman Orchestra. The bandstand occupies the house right half of the stage, and, in the ultimate fourth wall break, live theater patrons (that would be us) are actually part of the show, with even a lighted “applause” sign to cue us when to clap.
In the process, the characters display their quirks. Station doorman Pops Bailey (delightfully played by Michael Cook; “R.I.P. Van Winkle!”), a crotchety, old-time radio guy who makes racing wagers on the station’s phone, begins the show as the radio actors arrive one by one, including young showbiz hopeful Winnie Ferguson (Rylie Herbel; “The Wizard of Oz”), begging for her first real, big break (a role normally played as delivery boy Wally Ferguson).
A trombone player named Biff Baker (played by actual band member, Nathan Ruiz) has just enlisted in the military and is playing in his final show. Johnny Cantone is the martini-swirling, rat-pack wannabe crooner portrayed by Chris Caputo (“Man of La Mancha”), with a velvet voice and an itch for Hollywood, hitting notes that make the gals swoon. But his history with Ann Collier is quite apparent.
Kristin Henry (“Beauty and the Beast”) is an all-American sweetheart as the cool, controlled chanteuse Ann Collier, and delivers with vintage style the standout number, that old “Black Magic.” Ms. Henry’s Ann sings like Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Peggy Lee all rolled into one, and gives us a sizzling treat later with the only Christmas tune in the program, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Trevin Stephensen (“Lil’ Abner”) is a huge standout as the squeaky-clean BJ Gibson, good looking, and a preppy student at Yale. Mr. Stephensen is at the top of his game with the lovely solo, “You Go to My Head,” and also provides incredible harmonies in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Stephanie Bull (“The Secret Garden”) is a spirited and endearing femme fatale with impressive pipes as the temperature raising Ginger Brooks, singing “Blues in the Night.” Ms. Bull also impresses deeply in an ad-libbed WOV “Tix for Talk” Giveaway to the studio audience in Act Two.
And coming all the way from Ogden, Utah, is the bubbly bobby-soxer Connie Miller (Kristen Daniels; “Hairspray”), who, although the youngest member of the group, electrifies the audience with her pig-latin lyrics, jitterbugging and especially her tap-dancing. Perennially in love, and perpetually radiant, Ms. Daniels dazzles in snappy songs like “Daddy” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Johnny also flirts occasionally with Ms. Daniels’ young Connie - much to the displeasure of Connie's ever-present boyfriend, Mr. Stephenson’s B.J. Gibson (the love couple explodes in the duet, “How About You,” written for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1941’s “Babes on Broadway”).
Chris Fine is the faithful Neal Tilden, who has been with WOV since it was a gleam in Clifton’s eye, and will do anything to take over Johnny’s role and be the featured vocalist in the show. Mr. Fine transcends beautifully with the song, “Blue Moon.”
Then there’s Geneva Lee Browne, the southern belle of WOV, who got her start in music at age 17 performing in local swing ballrooms around the Atlanta area. Defining that character perfectly is the incredible Katherine Chatman (“The Music Man”), decked out in a classy, royal mauve evening gown, whose jazzy R&B rhythms puts you right in the mood with songs like, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “I Got it Bad, and That Ain’t Good.”
Add in the whimsical stage manager, Lou Cohn (Mark Wickham; “Waiting in the Wings”), who does an exceptional job with all the live sound effects — Lou is the surrogate boss during rehearsals, and loves to take charge and impress the gals— and with all that you have a heartwarming holiday show for the entire family.
The singers are backed by a terrific sixteen-piece band, including Tim Nelson conducting and providing accompaniment on piano; Gabriel Lopez, Keara Eulberg, Kaleigh Zehnder, Emily Pendergast, Kae Ransom and Izzy Risser on Woodwinds; Nathan Ruiz, Lily Parsons and Blake Furike on Trombone; Ana Flores on Drums; and Athena Schlosser, Justine Kadota, Isabella Chimento, Christian Solano and Gret Dwdy on Trumpet.
RCT’s studio set is well-designed and decorated, thanks to the technical wizardry of Chris Caputo. Tim Nelson’s selection of costumes are in period; Sophia Courtemarche designed the lighting; Jennifer Simpson-Matthews supplied the choreographic moves; and Eric Hearn provided excellent spot operation.
“1940’s Radio Hour,” now playing at Rose Center Theater, approaching their final weekend, Dec. 17th-19th. Don’t miss out on this nostalgic Christmastime staple of musical theater! Tickets are $17-$25. For further information and ordering, please visit the RCT website: https://www.rosecentertheater.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Ryan Salazar